User Experience: Learning From The Masters

Curator: Joey Cofone
date: December 21, 2013
Categories: Experience Design, Motion Graphics
Tags: joey cofone, UI/UX, user experience, user interface
Nintendo 2002
Metroid Prime, one of the first games to simulate a Heads Up Display (HUD) on the helmet of your character, essentially placing you—the player—into the character’s viewpoint.

Web UI/UX is in its infancy—but there’s another industry that has been doing this stuff for decades: video games.

I grew up playing Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation—you name it. As I grew older (and leveled up), so did they. Low-res sprites became high-poly 3-D models; 3:4 aspect ratio turned into 16:9; mono and stereo evolved into Dolby Surround Sound 5.1. As the technology developed, so did their presentations.

Back in the day, a video game menu could be summed up with “PRESS START.” Nowadays, game menus and interfaces are a far cry from anything flat, static and boring. After nearly four decades of evolution, the user experiences in games are stunning, and they’re only getting better.

The web, in comparison, has barely gotten its feet wet. We’re still swimming in safe “web standards,” celebrating advances in minutia or under-the-hood (read: technical) improvements and avoiding true experience innovation. I could list the things we see on 99 percent of websites, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. 

Disclaimer: Agreed, there are many websites out there with new and innovative UX design; these are outliers, and not the norm. Video games currently have a high standard for innovative UX, nearly to the point that the games that don't are actually the outliers.

This is expected, however, and I’m not criticizing the situation so much as pointing it out. Everything is incremental, and the fact that the web hasn’t been around as long as video games is ample reason for the dissonance between their user experiences. 

For those of you that play games, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you that don’t, it’s time to pick up a controller.

P.S. Take note of the captions.

BioWare 2007
Mass Effect: Instead of a standard menu, BioWare designed an entire spaceship in which your character could roam and perform many classical menu actions. Example: instead of choosing a planet from a list, you choose it from a 3-D galaxy map, which you have to walk up to in order to activate.

Rockstar 2013
Grand Theft Auto V (we’ve all heard of this one): Many in-game functions are performed via the character’s cell phone. Rockstar went so far as to give the three main characters different phones, complete with mock user interfaces based on iOS, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry.

Squaresoft 2001
Final Fantasy X: Up until FFX most Role Playing Games (RPGs) handled character development via long lists of skills. Squaresoft created a visual system that visualized your characters’ abilities—a major influencer on the process from then on.

Rare 1997
Goldeneye 007 (a true classic): Rare used James Bond’s smart watch to access the menu. If you press “start” his arm literally raises the watch to full-screen.

Blzzard 2010
Starcraft 2: Instead of a flat user interface, BioWare designed a control-center style UI. It’s as if you were to sit down at a battle station and command troops as they go into battle (which is exactly what the game is about).

Nintendo 1996
Super Mario 64, the game that inspired this post. One could go on for hours about the conceptual advances this game brought to the industry (1996), but let’s stick to the UI/UX. In SM64, the world hub is Peach’s castle. Instead of selecting levels via a menu, the player jumps INTO paintings scattered around the castle—and each comes alive as the player effectively selects a level.

Ubisoft 2007
Assassin’s Creed: Loading screens are tedious, and even the best ones simply show tool-tips to playing the respective game. Ubisoft took it to another level by letting the player control the character right off the bat and allowing the level to load around him once it was ready.

Blizzard 2004
World of Warcraft: Imagine a HUB so big that it seems like a game unto its own. That’s WoW in a nutshell—dozens of dungeons (levels) all connected by a giant world with thousands of players running around at once.


  • Tom Walter

    I think an even more interesting UX feature of many games than fancy menus is the way they teach you their interfaces and rules.

    Mario and Zelda are probably the finest examples of this. In both of those they constantly drip feed you new tools and techniques, alongside challenges designed to subtly guide you in how to use them. Then they gently ramp up the difficulty and start to give you challenges requiring you to combine multiple techniques.

    It hooks into the part of your brain that enjoys experimentation and learning, and is also heaps of fun. And you find yourself solving some incredibly complex puzzles all without ever noticing that you were being taught and without the designers ever actually explaining in words what you need to do.

    I’ve often thought it would be wonderful to see something like that in the world of web/software UX. I’m not clever enough to figure out how it could work though.

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